Let’s face it: although middle and high school math isn’t rocket science, teaching middle and high school math to a group of unruly kids, some of whom are a year or more behind, is no easy feat. Some teachers are bound to be significantly more – or less – effective than others, but how much of a difference does it really make?
Why do kids start falling behind?
When parents call us due to difficulties their children are having with math, one of the first questions I ask them is “When did it start?”, followed by “What happened?”.
Whether it’s been going on for years or it’s a recent development, I’ve noticed that the majority of parents can pinpoint the trouble to a specific grade, and usually to a specific teacher. Sometimes it’s a freak event, such as having a large part of a semester covered by a substitute due to some unforeseen circumstance, but more often than not it’s simply an ineffective teacher.
Teachers can be ineffective for a variety of reasons. Some have a weak grasp of the material (this does happen) or are difficult to understand. Others are bad at controlling and directing their class. A teacher can be too aggressive or too passive, and end up being either feared or not taken seriously by their students. A new teacher could be too inexperienced, while a veteran teacher might be too jaded – or no longer really present.
Finally, some teachers have odd quirks and inexplicable requirements. I once worked with a very bright student who was failing trigonometry. The root of the problem turned out to be that her teacher forced the class to solve all their complex math problems in a tiny space – 1/4 of a piece of paper per problem. We found a workaround (solving problems using ample space on normal paper, then transcribing to the tiny box), caught up on the material, and she soon started getting 100s on her math tests. She eventually got a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT.
I was truly amazed at how one misguided teacher could make an exceptional student doubt her abilities.
At worst, a bad teacher can damage a student’s confidence and self-perception. Students who start out optimistic can grow to doubt their abilities. I’ve worked with many intelligent, competent adults who, in their 30’s and 40’s, were still convinced that they were bad at math due to experiences they had in their formative years. It was too late to change their minds.
Although these seem like extreme examples, studies support my anecdotal observations. Research has shown that teacher quality has a lasting effect on performance and a larger impact on learning than any other factor.
Students who are placed with highly effective teachers for three years in a row significantly outperform average students. A student who has an outstanding teacher for just one year will remain ahead of their peers for the next few years.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well – a student with even one ineffective teacher may not catch up to his peers for up to three years, and having one excellent teacher doesn’t fully compensate for the effect of an ineffective one. Worse yet, students with three bad teachers in a row rarely catch up at all.
According to the study, “Differences in student achievement of 50 percentile points were observed as a result of teacher sequence after only three years.”
Finally, ineffective teachers tend to be ineffective for all students, regardless of their ability level.
When your kids complain about their teacher
Given the long-term effects a bad teacher can have on your child’s academic performance (and even self-concept), it’s important to take their complaints seriously.
The first thing to do is to determine whether the problem is an ineffective teacher or a personality clash between the teacher and your child. Ask your child how his or her classmates are doing and, if possible, talk to the classmates’ parents. If your child is having issues, odds are his or her peers are as well.
If most kids are doing well, then it’s likely more of a personality clash, and it’s something you can talk to the teacher about. It’s a mistake to hope that younger kids can overcome personality differences with their teachers, but as they get older, it becomes more realistic. After all, they aren’t going to like everyone they have to work or deal with as adults.
If the teacher is truly ineffective and everyone is doing poorly, there’s less that can be done. Talking to them is not likely to fix anything. If it’s early in the semester, see if your child can transfer to another class with a different teacher. If it’s not an option, make sure that your child knows that it’s not their fault, but that it’s up to them to make the best out of a bad situation. Help them survive the semester by getting some outside support, such as an after-school program, and/or a private tutor. It can make all the difference.
Either way, make sure that they don’t have this teacher ever again. You don’t want your child to hate math forever because of one or two bad eggs in an otherwise good school.